Award-winning photographer Ellen Cuylaerts has come a long way from an IT career in her native Belgium, now travelling the world to capture the beauty of nature while imparting strong environmental messages through her underwater shots.
Her love of photography began in her youth, and hours spent babysitting provided a 13-year-old Cuylaerts with enough money to purchase her first Nikon DSLR.
“However, I forgot to save for lenses, a strobe, and development of film in those pre-digital photography days,” she said. “I gave up even before I started to learn to manually use that camera.”
Luckily, her interest in photography survived this roadblock, and after relocating to Cayman with her family with a diving qualification under her weight belt, she revisited her childhood dream and purchased a small camera and underwater housing.
“I read everything I could find about underwater photography, tested shots on land and followed a workshop, and within a few months I won my first competition,” she said.
Fast-forward to present day, and this one award has grown to over 20, with Cuylaerts being recognised globally by her peers. She is a Fellow at the Explorers Club NYC; wrote and starred in the award-winning documentary ‘Epiphany’; and spoke at the United Nations General Assembly on World Oceans Day 2017.
Cuylaerts’ shooting locations of choice span both desolate arctic regions and the lush tropics.
“The best encounters are in rich waters, most of the time not with the best visibility due to upwelling nutrients, but attracting an abundance of marine life,” she said.
“If I had to choose a favourite, it would be the ice floes in winter in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the breeding grounds for harp seals.” Here in this unpredictable terrain, Cuylaerts captures harp seal pups who share their environment with hungry polar bears. In the years when the ice is at a minimum, their mortality rate can be over 90%.
“To me, the innocence of these baby animals, trying to surviving in a harsh world, either extremely cold, or on melting ice, symbolises climate change,” Cuylaerts explained. “If I look them in the eye and capture that, I do hope I can make people think with my images.”
Closer to home, Devil’s Grotto dive site in George Town provides an amazing and ever-changing photography subject – the silversides phenomenon. “Their movement in unison, as a defence against the lurking predators like tarpon and jacks, is one of the most humbling experiences to be in the middle of, as a diver,” Cuylaerts said.
She has seen this spectacle diminish over the years, and says the numbers are further threatened by the proposed building of the dock. “Devil’s Grotto, Eden Rock and Soto’s Reef are still teeming with life and every dive there you’re in for a surprise. We need to protect these, it’s the reason many tourists visit our islands.”
Cuylaerts’ passion about environmental awareness is evident, and she uses her images to encourage a dialogue around the subject.
“By showing the beauty left in the oceans, I wish to raise hope and the idea that every action and choice does make a difference. Every time you say ‘no’ to a plastic bag, use a reusable water container or coffee cup…you are the difference and change you want to see,” she said.
Cuylaerts shares an artistic streak with her late father, whom she calls an ‘artist with words; a poet’, and who taught her she could be anything she wanted. “He would be so proud knowing what I do now and that art does run through the blood.”
Her two children with cinematographer Michael Maes were also integral in her journey to becoming a nature photographer, helping her reconnect with nature when she was working in the IT realm.
“My children have high-functioning autism, and when they were little and stressed by a world with too many triggers, we escaped many times on mini-road trips, just me and the children or together with their dad,” she recalled. “From beach walks looking for fossils to museums with preferably a big natural history collection.”
Cuylaerts has always fought for her children to be able to be their true selves, despite society’s and school’s prejudgments of their disorders; prejudgments which ultimately led to them leaving their home country of Belgium. She then homeschooled them at home in North Side and ‘in the field’ when the parents travelled for their art.
“The journey has not been an easy one; I learned to follow my heart and that a giving life can be very fulfilling, but you have to protect your own balance very well,” she said. “I have no room for negativity and self-pity in my life, I concentrate on constructive positivity.”
As such, her advice to her younger self would be to “always take care of yourself and your health, both physical and mental, so that others can rely on you when they need you. You can’t be someone else’s rock when you’re not balanced”.
Five quick-fire questions
- What would you say is your party trick?
Use your senses. Breathe in the moment, capture what you feel!
- What items do you never leave home without?
iPhone and laptop. Those two are my mobile office and I can work and write wherever I am (and I always have enough work to do or to catch up on).
- What superpower would you like to have and why?
I would love to be able to make unhappy people instantly happy, and to make an unhealthy earth instantly healthy.
- What is your favourite TV show right now?
I only watch Netflix so I’m limited, we have no cable out of choice… I loved ‘After Life’ with Ricky Gervais – raw and pure, like life!
- Do you have any vices?